The Star Woman

A series of dreams about an elusive island and stars lead me to a small village on the coast on Honduras, where I learn to let go.

The stars, that nature hung in heaven, and filled their lamps with everlasting oil, give light to the misled and lonely traveler.
— John Milton

The bus swayed like ample hips, rocking gently back and forth in the flood water that was several feet deep. The Garifuna women on the bus paused and then went back to their chatter. Their skirts and blouses of bright gingham resolute, the flowered kerchiefs on their heads bobbing up and down as the bus bounced, like optimistic flags.

“Pig Island. Pig Island. Pig Island.” I repeated to myself.  Two words. My mantra. Four days’ journey across Honduras by bus. Once I got to the island, everything would be fine.

 Pig Island. Cayos de Cochinos. I’d heard about the island while visiting an animal sanctuary for rescued birds outside of the ruins of Copan. The owner also had a large collection of animals endemic to Honduras. Tiny white bats. Flesh colored geckos. Snakes. I had stopped short at the snake cages, afraid. Snakes were otherworldly, eerie.

“If you want to see an unusual snake, go to Pig Island.” The sanctuary owner continued on, describing the snake he was so enamored with that he thought it worthy of a journey across the country. “Pale pink, the smallest boa constrictor in the world—and they are only on that island.”

I imagined myself handling a baby pink boa constrictor. Somehow the idea of it being pink and small made the idea a little less terrifying.

And that was how I ended up on a bus, headed across the country to the coast, to Pig Island, to a hopeful encounter with one of the rarest snakes on Earth.

 It had started raining from the moment I had decided to go. Flooding made the buses take unusual routes, making the trip twice as long. Yet I was so focused on reaching Pig Island that I barely stopped at the bus terminals, choosing instead to sleep and eat on the move. Munching on fried fish and plantains, I’d stare out my window. Tiny shacks. Men standing on lean to porches made of palm. Endless muddied green. After a few days, the monotonous view began to lull me sleep.

As we moved slowly through the afternoon rain, I dreamt about Pig Island, which was in Garifuna territory. In my dreams I was on a small fishing boat with several Garifuna men, rowing to the island at night. They caught small metallic fish with their hands, tossing them on the floor of the boat. We gazed at the stars, and they told star-stories. But each time I awoke, I couldn’t recall the stories about the stars--only the sound of the men clapping their hands in the water.

The Garifuna had woven themselves into my waking life, too. As we neared the coast, seats which had been occupied by Honduran cowboys and city girls wearing tight jeans were now filled by Garifuna matrons. Full layered skirts. Peter Pan collared blouses. Babies and packages. My own lap had been borrowed for use by a Garifuna woman who had shoved her ample body into my seat, her corpulence spilling over onto me.

 Squashed and trapped against the side of the bus, we sat and stared at one another. Me, messy ponytail and dirty traveling clothes. Her, kerchief and dress of black and white calico floral starched and pressed.  Her plump hands rest on a package on her lap. Every once in a while, the package emits a muffed protest.

My eyebrows raise in a question, and she laughingly pats the package, saying, “It’s a chicken.”

“Where are you going in this rain? It is the wrong time to go anywhere here-- I am only coming from work.” Her Spanish lilts, melodic from her Garifun accent.

“I’m going to Pig Island,” I told her. I thought about telling her about the pink snakes.

“Oh, Pig Island. The island of women.”

She began to weave a story about the women who lived on the island. According to her, they ran the island alone, without the help of men. They’d come to this decision simply: the island had limited resources and the men didn’t do their fair share of the work. The men had been sent away to live on the mainland and fish in the sea. Every now and then, they’d bring the women needed supplies. The Garifuna women of Pig Island seemed practical, strong, and fearless. The ideal women to be with as I wandered the island in search of pink boa constrictors. It doesn't matter to me whether she is weaving a tale or not--the mere fact the island women could inspire such a tale makes me want to go there even more.

 I tell her that I am a just tiny bit of afraid of snakes, and that’s why I’m headed to the island.

“You don’t need to be afraid of the snakes on that island! They raise them in bins! It’s the spirits here that you need to worry about. The spirits that guide people to their final home.” She leans in and whispers, “The ancestors. Gubidas.”

I smile at her. “I’m not worried about the spirits. I’m interested in the snakes. Besides, I’ve been having dreams about the island since I decided to go. I’m meant to go there.” And I tell her about my dreams of the island, the men and fish, the night sky and the star-stories.

“Stars. Waruguma. Stars are from the Gubidas. Dreams are brought by the Gubidas, too.” She bites her lips, her hands pressing hard on the chicken package in her lap.

Our conversation is dramatically interrupted as our bus lurches sideways without warning, stranding us in the mud. Stuck. The bus groans and creaks as everyone tries to get up at once, a blur of red and blue gingham.

The women push their way out the double doors of the bus, ignoring the rain. Walking in groups, they balance packages on their heads as they shelter babies under a Technicolor rainbow of blouses and skirts. Thrusting their legs through the flood, they walk towards homes I cannot see, and disappear.

The driver looks at me expectantly, and I suddenly understand he is waiting for me to get off the bus. I was waiting for someone to offer to help me or send me somewhere, but no one had.

Standing in the road, the brown water swallows my feet and my sense of direction. I feel somehow comically helpless, and find myself laughing nervously at my predicament: lost in a strange place, all because I want to go to an island I’d never even heard of a week ago.

Slogging through the mud and water is slow going and I hold my daypack in front of me, like a compass. It carries clothing, journals, and a few talismans: an ivory plastic statue of Mary in miniature that had belonged to my grandmother; my grandfather’s broken watch; and a faded laminated photograph of myself at age eight. More than simple trinkets or objects, these are amulets that have helped me feel at home in this faraway place. Trusted guides.

I wade through the high water for over an hour, the rain my singular companion. Thick mud. Palm trees. Flimsy huts. A landscape abandoned.

Then I see small dark speck of black up ahead. As I get nearer, the speck transforms from shapeless dot into the Garifuna woman who sat next to me on the bus. She’s standing in the road, water up to her mid-calf, battling with a flimsy Hello Kitty umbrella against the rain.

She glances at me making my way towards her. She calls out, “Buiti, Waruguma Hinyanru.” Welcome, Star Woman. She turns and begins to walk up to her house.

“Are you inviting me in? I don’t understand,” I call back to her. Star woman? Is she talking to me?

“Are you going to stay outside? Then stay outside if that’s what you want.” She laughs, but she waits for me.

Her home is high, on cinderblock stilts. Walls of woven grass. Thatched roof of bleached palm fronds. The porch is crowded with red plastic palm oil drums, numerous children, and skinny dogs.

I follow her up the stairs and into the one room house, immediately surprised by its tidiness in this swampy setting. Pallet bed, crisply made. Wooden floor swept. Tables covered in cheerful yellow oilcloth. The room smells sweet and salty, like nectarines and the sea.

She pushes me into an alcove that has a plastic shower curtain running across it. “Here, take this dougou, skirt and blouse.” The clothes are heavy, decorated with ruffles of large black and white flowers. The skirt is much too short, but I can’t complain, for I’ve no clean or dry clothes of my own.

When I come out of the alcove, I see the contents of my bag have been placed on the table. The children are playing with my grandmother’s Mary statue, my grandfather’s watch, and my laminated photo of myself as a young girl.

“Is this your daughter, Waruguma Hinyanru? Why does your watch not work? Why do you carry this statue?” The children are full endless questions.

I explain that the picture is me, and that the watch and statue had belonged to people I loved who had died. The woman from the bus comes over and puts the things up high on a shelf, and then abruptly pulls a short curtain, displaying a tiny shrine with photographs of a young man. Everyone is quiet as we stare at his face. Young. Expectant. Defiant. “My son.”

“You understand the ancestors, the Gubidas, very well, Waruguma Hinyanru. It is important to honor them,” she says, leading me out to the front porch. “It’s time to prepare the food for tonight. You are here, so you will help.”

 She explains we are making hudut, a dish of fish cooked in coconut water, served with plantains. She shows me a box, heavy with silver fish, the fish of my Garifuna dreams.  I watch her slit open the belly of each fish with a rough knife, gutting it in one instantaneous motion.

 I realize I still don’t know her name. She looks up, and seeing my face, reads my mind. “Sara.”, she says, slapping my thigh with a dead fish. “But for you, you are simply Waruguma Hinyanru. The Star Woman. The woman who dreams of stars.”

She shows me how to mash plantains in a wooden bucket with a tall paddle. I stand on the porch, pounding the green hard plantains, unaware that a small crowd has gathered in the rain. Sara, too, is busy cutting open the fish, and we don’t notice the visitors until they are almost on the porch.

“What is she doing here? Tonight is the beluria. She can’t be here. What about the Gubidas?” Voices heavy and harsh. Arms crossed. Eyes stare at me accusing me of something I don’t understand. I stand frozen, wooden paddle in my hand, afraid to move. Should I leave? Should I stay?

Sara stands, fish in one hand, knife in the other. Her singsong voice now sounds angry too. “Where is she supposed to be? Look at the rains! She was supposed to come here.” She thrusts the bloody fish into one of the men’s hands, and the women follow her into the house. She shows them my grandmother’s Mary statue and my grandfather’s watch. “ Waruguma Hinyanru, she brings her ancestors with her.”

They file out, arms crossed, glancing at my lumpy excuse for mashed plantains. Sara follows after them, her mouth fixed and resolute. I’ve seen that expression somewhere else today, on the face of the young man in the shrine of her living room.

“Would you like me to leave? I don’t want to cause any problems. I was just on my way to Pig Island…” I trail off as she glares at me.

“No. I will tell you what has happened. My son. He died. Tonight is the beluria, the ninth night wake. Everyone comes. But tonight, with the rains… The ancestors have taken him to his resting place, and we have a party for him. The community doesn’t want you to come. But I have agreed to take you to the buyei, the village priest, and I will do what she says.”

 Tearing strips of newspaper, she delicately wraps my statue and watch, placing them in a plastic shopping bag.  “These will help us.” she said.

We set out for the buyei’s house: both barefoot, not wanting to lose our shoes in the mud. Sara’s heavy body moves through the flood carefully determined. I trail behind her, all eyes on me as people watch from their porches in silence.

The buyei stands waiting on her porch. Enormous, her rolls of fat press against her clothes, her upper arms flapping as she waves to us in greeting. She wears a tent dress of green calico, navy blue pockets torn. Her skin is smooth, her teeth gone, her hair pulled tight under a worn kerchief printed with red roses. Her eyes squint at my face as she invites us into her house.

Buiti. Welcome. I’ve been expecting you.”

 I fiddle nervously with the handle of my shopping bag, watching her hands, crudely tattooed with circles and stars. Ball point pen tattoos.

“I’ve been waiting for you. I knew a stranger was coming. I knew many days ago.” She takes my bag, and opens it. “What have you brought me? Fish? Cassava bread?”

Sara avoids my gaze.

“What do you call yourself?” the buyei asks. She unwraps my plastic Mary statue and wristwatch. I am silent, thinking about my precious talismans.

“Her name is not important, buyei. She is only here for my son,” replies Sara. “I am calling her by the name of Waruguma Hinyanru, Star Woman. She dreams of stars.”

We both sit on a narrow bench, as the buyei walks back and forth across the room. She stops and leans down into my face. “What are your star dreams, Waruguma Hinyanru?”

I tell her about Pig Island and how I want to go the island to see pink snakes. I’m really just on my way somewhere else. I’m not supposed to be here at all. I’m actually ready to go right now.

The buyei brushes aside a curtain. An entire wall of Mary, candles, plastic flowers. Jesus takes center stage in an enormous metallic crucifixion, surrounded by stuffed animals and plastic grapes.

Then I see the stars. Small stars have been painted all over the wall. They rise in an arc above the shrine, painted in bright red and metallic pink. Nail polish.

I watch as the buyei’s starred hands cradle my watch and Mary statue. She nestles them in carefully between stuffed teddy bears and red candles. A front row seat of the crucifixion.

“What are your star dreams, Waruguma Hinyanru?” she asks me again, moving so close to me that I can smell her breath. Nectarines.

I feel my mouth moving, my voice speaking, telling her my Garifuna dreams. The little fishing boat on its way to the island. Garifuna men that caught fish by clapping their hands under the water. Silver fish piled up in the bottom of the boat, scales flashing in the moonlight. Stars and star-stories.

“Tell me about these,” she says, her jiggling arm moving in a wide sweep across her shrine, pausing for a moment on the statue and watch.

“They belonged to my grandparents. They died. I wanted to keep them with me…  I didn’t want to say goodbye.”

“They’ve found a home now.” The buyei stroked the watch. “Your ancestors are our ancestors. They have come home.”  I stared hard at my little amulets, trying to picture what my grandmother would have thought of residing in such a place. I wasn’t sure she would have liked it very much. But then again, she had been daring as a young woman. And my grandfather had ridden trains across the states when he was a boy. In their youth, they had each been travelers out of necessity. Maybe they were ready for their next adventure, here with the Garifuna. Perfect and ironic at the same time, for their conversations in life had always been overripe with racism against black and brown people. Now they could float about this village, without white bodies or voices, listening and learning from the Garifuna. Afterlife lessons for this next stage of being.

Sara rose. “What about the beluria, the ninth night wake?” she gestured toward me. “Can she go?”

The buyei stood, her arms folded across her chest. Starred fingers dancing a rhythm on calico. Her face turned towards the shrine, and she replied, “Yes, she is a guest. An important guest. A guest of your son, with powerful stories.”

We walked back to Sara’s house in silence. Water lapped up over my calves. Mud pleasantly squished between my toes. Rain gone, replaced by a fine mist. For the first time in days, I’d stopped thinking about Pig Island, about getting somewhere else.

The belluria that night was a huge party, and despite the floods, everyone came out to celebrate.  Children splashed in the water, the sky cleared, and wooden drums beat long into the night. I danced badly, overcooked the hudut fish, burned the fried plantains, and could scarcely handle more than a single cup of rum. But none of this mattered, for everyone wanted to hear the Waruguma Hinyanru’s stories most of all.  I told the stories of my grandparents, my ancestors, my Gubridas. The stories my grandmother told me: how she arrived in America from Italy as a young bride; her mustard yellow kitchen, the importance of orange Jell-O and pot roast on Sundays; her penchant for too tight floral jumpsuits. The stories my grandfather told me: his secret trunk in the basement, opened on a hailing summer afternoon, full of pictures of women whose names he'd forgotten; how he'd left his home, traveling across the country, and ended up working on a ship. The story of how after they married, they stopped going anywhere, squirreling their money away behind paint by number paintings of the Last Supper.

 With the telling of each story about my grandparents, I felt more and more like Waruguma Hinyanru, Star Woman, who had brought her ancestors to their final resting place. I pictured my grandmother admiring Sara’s immaculate house. I saw my grandfather watching the men come in from the sea, their boats full of fish. The buyei was right: here was a place I could lay them to rest.

I sat on the back porch of Sara’s house, tossing cassava bread to the dogs, watching the stars that had entered my Garifuna dreams… and brought my grandparents home.

Amy Gigi Alexander

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